Lumumba’s Role in the Struggle for Independence

    Who was Patrice Lumumba, and why was he so horribly murdered by the forces of the counterrevolution in Central and Southern Africa, which included the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, major mining companies, white settlers from Congo’s Katanga province to the Cape of Good Hope, and right-wing extremists in Western Europe and the United States? In a series of articles, we revisit his life and discuss the case for reparations for his assassination.

  • By Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, Senior Historian
  • August 03, 2021
  • In Educate
Patrice Lumumba
Patrice Lumumba in Brussels in 1960 Photo Credit: here

The year 1958 ended with the emergence of Patrice Lumumba as one of the principal leaders of the struggle for independence in the Belgian Congo. The starting point was the transit in Kinshasa of Tom Mboya, the Secretary General of Kenya’s trade unions, and Abdul Rahim Mohamed Babu, a Zanzibari nationalist leader, on their way to the First All-African People’s Conference in Accra, Ghana. Concerned that a huge country like the Congo was likely to miss the great pan-African gathering being staged by President Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, they asked a hotel employee fluent in Kiswahili whether there were prominent Congolese political leaders they could meet to discuss the conference. The worker was greatly pleased to take them to one of the bars where Lumumba was doing his usual promotion of Polar, the beer produced by Bracongo, against Primus, the beer of the largest brewery in Kinshasa, Bralima.

In their conversation with Lumumba, conducted without interpreters in Kiswahili, the East Africans were so impressed with the Congolese leader that they sent a telegraph to the headquarters of the Pan-African Freedom Movement of Eastern and Central Africa (PAFMECA) in Dar es Salaam requesting money to take three Congolese leaders to Accra. This is how Lumumba and two other MNC leaders, Gaston Diomi and Joseph Ngalula, made up the Congolese delegation to the First AAPC. This is the story that the author heard from Mohamed Babu in London in 1987. Other narratives, which emphasize the role of the Belgian pacifist Jean Van Lierde and his pro-Africa group Les Amis de Présence Africaine or that of the Ghanaian employee of the U.S. Consulate in Kinshasa Evans Lomotey as intermediaries with the organizers in Accra, are not in contradiction with what Babu told me.

In Accra, Lumumba met and made friends with President Nkrumah and other progressive heads of state, namely Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea and Modibo Keita of Mali. He also met many of the most illustrious African liberation leaders, including Amilcar Cabral of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, Frantz Fanon of Algeria and Félix-Roland Moumié of Cameroon. Lumumba’s own speech to the conference on December 11, 1958 was one of the most greatly applauded by over 300 delegates representing political parties, liberation movements, trade unions and other civil society organizations from 28 African countries and colonies and from the African diaspora in the Americas. The speech marked a total rupture with his pre-1958 positions. Colonialism was no longer seen as a harbinger of Western civilization, but a system of exploitation and injustice. Colonial invaders and their successors were no longer heroes to be admired, but racists with an idiotic superiority complex. Finally, the objective of the Congolese people’s struggle was no longer racial equality in a Belgo-Congolese community, but their liberation from colonialism and the attainment of independence. This was a conceptualization of the struggle against colonialism and imperialism purely from the standpoint of African nationalism. His prestige and his confidence level were enhanced by his election to the executive committee of the AAPC.

Lumumba returned to Kinshasa with a new engagement – to devote full-time to the struggle for independence beginning on January 1, 1959 by expanding the MNC nationally and mobilizing the masses to free the country from colonialism. The MNC delegation held a large and very successful public rally on Sunday, December 28, 1958 to give a report to the people on what had happened in Accra. Feeling that Lumumba was likely to overtake his place as the most prominent nationalist leader in the Belgian Congo, Joseph Kasavubu, the leader of the Alliance de Bakongo (Abako) scheduled his own public rally the next Sunday, January 4, 1959.

When this rally did not get the authorization of the Belgian mayor of Kinshasa, the people who had gathered on the YMCA grounds, the same place Lumumba had held his rally the previous Sunday, refused to obey Kasavubu’s request that they go home. They rioted, attacking all symbols of white supremacy. They were joined by thousands of people getting out of a nearby soccer stadium, and the riot turned into a major uprising against colonialism. Today, the 4th of January is celebrated in the DRC as Independence Martyrs Day, in honor of the hundreds of patriots who died during the three days of rebellion against colonial rule.

For Patrice Lumumba, 1959 was a year of political education, organization and mobilization. In July, the MNC split into two wings, a moderate one controlled by most of the founders, who placed it under the presidency of Albert Kalonji as the MNC-K, and a more progressive wing led by Lumumba himself as the MNC-L. In addition to building the MNC-L into a national party, Lumumba’s other important engagements included a major address on March 22 on African unity and national independence at a seminar of the Congress for Cultural Freedom at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, participation at the first congress of Congolese political parties at Kananga, then Luluabourg (April 9-12), participation in an extraordinary meeting of the AAPC executive committee in Conakry, Guinea (April 15-17), a series of lectures and news conferences in Belgium (April 22-28), and a two-week stay in Accra for the AAPS executive committee meeting, the funeral of George Padmore, the AAPC Secretary General, and other business, from October 3-19. The year ended with three major events in Kisangani: the holding of the first MNC-L congress from October 23-28, the hosting of a congress of nationalist parties on October 29-30, and the popular uprising against police and military repression of MNC-L supporters on October 30-November 1. Accused of being behind acts of violence that were actually initiated by law enforcement forces, Lumumba was tried and condemned to six months of hard labor on January 21, 1960 and sent to the notorious underground prison at Likasi, then Jadotville, on January 22.

In Brussels, the Political Round Table Conference between the Belgian government and Congolese political leaders had begun on January 20 for negotiations on the independence of the Congo. The Congolese delegates made a non-negotiable demand that the conference cannot go forward unless Patrice Lumumba was freed and allowed to attend it. The Belgians gave in. Released from jail on January 24, Lumumba arrived in Brussels on January 25 and joined the conference on January 27, the very day a decision was taken that the Congo would become independent on June 30, 1960.

Since the conference ended on February 20, Lumumba was one of the few Congolese leaders selected as members of the central executive college to learn within four months only how to govern a country of 2, 344, 858 sq km., 83 times the size of Belgium. These leaders, along with those chosen as members of the provincial executive colleges, had little time in which to master the art of governance, given the fact that they had to campaign for the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 1960 and to deal with numerous ethnic and communal conflicts being stoked by the Belgians to create instability and thus prevent an orderly transition of power for purposes of establishing neocolonial rule in the Congo.

To the Belgian Establishment, the decision fixing the date of independence on June 30, 1960, which the Congolese took as a “victory,” was perceived as an advantage. Precipitating the “granting” of independence allowed the Belgians to take advantage of the limited knowledge by the Congolese of the strategic interests of the West in Central Africa to begin preparing a neocolonial solution . This consisted in keeping control over the Congolese economy while continuing to make key decisions for the new and inexperienced political class. The Belgians moved to concretize this at the Economic Roundtable Conference, held between April 26 and May 16 with the future head of secessionist Katanga Moise Tshombe as the sole major politician to attend, the other political parties having sent as their negotiators Congolese university graduates and seniors.

The terrain was well prepared for the Belgians to achieve their objectives. Although the decisions of the Economic Roundtable were not binding, like those of the Political Roundtable, Belgium moved to implement whatever they saw as beneficial for their interests. On June 26, 1960, only four days before independence, they announced the privatization of state capital in large corporations, selling state-owned shares on the cheap to private firms. This basically amounted to looting the new state’s investment capital. They also asked Belgian corporations and subsidiaries based in the Congo to transfer their headquarters to Belgium, thus depriving the new state of a lot of taxes and royalties. On the other hand, they left virtually all of the public debt to be paid by the new state. This open robbery of Congolese assets had never been accepted by the Congolese people, and the Belgo-Congolese economic dispute of sixty years ago remains unsolved until today. Through his friends in the progressive academic and political circles of Belgium, Lumumba was aware of this theft.

With their mineral empire running from Katanga to the Cape, international mining companies did not like the idea of having a radical nationalist in charge of the government in the Congo, particularly one like Lumumba, who would reduce their profit margins with higher taxes and royalties in order to improve the livelihood of ordinary Congolese. Having rejected efforts of white settlers in the Congo to get a piece of the pie as their counterparts in South Africa, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South West Africa (Namibia) had done, switched gears by forming an alliance with racist white settlers and right-wing lobbies in the United States and the United Kingdom. This alliance endorsed the long-held dream of white settlers to gain political power in Katanga, and provided the funds needed to sustain the secessionist drive in Katanga under black puppets like Tshombe and Godefroid Munongo, with help from Belgium, Britain and France.

In the next article, we talk about Lumumba and the Congo crisis, June 30, 1960 to January 17, 1961.

Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja is a Professor of African and Global Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences. He is a Senior Historian at The Africa I Know.